Homo sapiens is a social species. We rely on each other for comfort, companionship, support, nurturance and guidance. We also rely on each other for a reassurance, so most of us respond positively to another person’s joy and negatively to another person’s suffering. By paying attention to and developing our relationships with others, we lay down another building block to a well-lived life.
Technical and Analytical Readings
Journals on human relationships:
- René Magritte, Georgette (1937)
Music: songs and other short pieces
- Paul Simon's iconic song, Sound of Silence, expresses our profound longing for meaningful relationships.
- In Graceland, Simon sneaks up on us: this is no mere carefree trip to Elvis' house.
- The song title, Hearts and Bones (Paul Simon), expresses the idea of deeply felt relationships.
- Joni Mitchell, Cactus Tree
- Fritz Kreisler, Liebesfraud (“Love’s Joy”)
In this passage from Les Misérables, Hugo describes the moment when Cosette, only eight years old, recognizes that Jean Valjean has brought something new and wonderful into her life:
Cosette, on her side, had also, unknown to herself, become another being, poor little thing! She was so little when her mother left her, that she no longer remembered her. Like all children, who resemble young shoots of the vine, which cling to everything, she had tried to love; she had not succeeded. All had repulsed her,--the Thénardiers, their children, other children. She had loved the dog, and he had died, after which nothing and nobody would have anything to do with her. It is a sad thing to say, and we have already intimated it, that, at eight years of age, her heart was cold. It was not her fault; it was not the faculty of loving that she lacked; alas! it was the possibility. Thus, from the very first day, all her sentient and thinking powers loved this kind man. She felt that which she had never felt before--a sensation of expansion. The man no longer produced on her the effect of being old or poor; she thought Jean Valjean handsome, just as she thought the hovel pretty. These are the effects of the dawn, of childhood, of joy. The novelty of the earth and of life counts for something here. Nothing is so charming as the coloring reflection of happiness on a garret. We all have in our past a delightful garret. Nature, a difference of fifty years, had set a profound gulf between Jean Valjean and Cosette; destiny filled in this gulf. Destiny suddenly united and wedded with its irresistible power these two uprooted existences, differing in age, alike in sorrow. One, in fact, completed the other. Cosette's instinct sought a father, as Jean Valjean's instinct sought a child. To meet was to find each other. At the mysterious moment when their hands touched, they were welded together. When these two souls perceived each other, they recognized each other as necessary to each other, and embraced each other closely. Taking the words in their most comprehensive and absolute sense, we may say that, separated from every one by the walls of the tomb, Jean Valjean was the widower, and Cosette was the orphan: this situation caused Jean Valjean to become Cosette's father after a celestial fashion. And in truth, the mysterious impression produced on Cosette in the depths of the forest of Chelles by the hand of Jean Valjean grasping hers in the dark was not an illusion, but a reality. [Victor Hugo, Les Misérables (1862), Volume II – Cosette; Book Fourth – The Gorbeau Hovel, Chapter III, Two Misfortunes Make One Piece of Good Fortune.]
Having taken the infant Quasimodo into his care, Claude Frollo reflects on the meaning of his actions.
This young brother, without mother or father, this little child which had fallen abruptly from heaven into his arms, made a new man of him. He perceived that there was something else in the world besides the speculations of the Sorbonne, and the verses of Homer; that man needed affections; that life without tenderness and without love was only a set of dry, shrieking, and rending wheels. Only, he imagined, for he was at the age when illusions are as yet replaced only by illusions, that the affections of blood and family were the sole ones necessary, and that a little brother to love sufficed to fill an entire existence. [Victor Hugo, Notre-Dame de Paris, or, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831), Volume I, Book Fourth, Chapter II, “Claude Frollo”.]
- Eleanor Henderson, Ten Thousand Saints: A Novel (HarperCollins Publishers, 2011): on how relationships hold us together and sometimes destroy us.
- Joan Silber, Improvement: A Novel (Counterpoint, 2017): “This is a novel of richness and wisdom and huge pleasure. Silber knows, and reveals, how close we live to the abyss, but she also revels in joy, particularly the joy that comes from intimate relationships.”
- Nicole Dennis-Benn, Patsy: A Novel (Liveright, 2019): “Nicole Dennis-Benn carefully unspools the stories behind each wound over the long course of this richly imagined novel, her second; their provenances emerge gradually, piece by piece, the way a person’s story of trauma emerges only with time and trust. Without giving those stories away, I’ll simply say that this subtle motif beautifully illustrates how the characters are connected to one another by love, desire and violence, and how they bear those histories permanently, both within and on their bodies.”
- Joseph O’Connor, Shadowplay: A Novel (Europa, 2020): “How Did Bram Stoker Dream Up ‘Dracula’?” [on the events and relationships that inspired Bram Stoker’s Dracula]
- Martin Amis, Inside Story: A Novel (Alfred A. Knopf, 2020): “It purports to be an autobiographical novel — “life-writing,” Amis calls it — featuring a number of real people, many of them famous, along with others who’ve been lightly pseudonymed, yet it’s also, somehow, a vocational primer on how to write fiction, and an excellent one at that.”
Film and Stage
- The Dreamlife of Angels, “a soulful, moving vision of our shared responsibility for one another's lives”
- Shrek: love is about what is inside, even if the main character is, like, totally gross
- Tristana, “a haunting study of a human relationship in which the power changes hands”
- The Unbearable Lightness of Being: emotionally detached sex becomes unbearable to a successful surgeon when he meets a woman who engages him emotionally
- Let the Right One In: the 12-year-old female protagonist is a vampire but the film is really about “an urgent relationship between two 12-year-olds on the brink of adolescence”; piercing his solitude, she transforms his life “and there’s no turning back”. Don’t let the campy theme fool you, or be put off by picayune objections to killing people by draining their blood; this is a marvelous film if you can overlook the implicit ethical premise. (Virginia takes the far more virtuous course of action.)
- Into the Wild: about the importance, sometimes the necessity, of human connections.
- The Big Sick: illustrations of and musings on relationships that matter most
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
Despite its many dark passages and its composition in a minor key, for most of its duration, Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98, is an optimistic cascade of interwoven harmonies throughout the orchestra. Its upbeat tone and the positive interplay between the various instrumental voices evokes a sense of exquisite joy, and its passion trumpets the power of those feelings. Each movement can be heard as an exposition on the kinds of relationships that give special qualities of meaning to our lives. I will explore the symphony through a performance conducted by Kurt Sanderling, which I believe to be the among work’s finest recordings. (In contrast, hear this dark reading conducted by Carlos Kleiber.)
- The first movement (Allegro non troppo) opens with a simple motif within the strings, in which the entire orchestra joins over time. The idea remains simple throughout but Brahms’ lingering development is loving in tone and character, with such things as little rhythmic nuances (for example, at 0:38) providing the contrasts.
- The second movement (Andante moderato) (13:04) is similar in tone to the first but here, instead of the first movement’s ebullient tutti section, the entrance of the entire orchestra (16:02) evokes a more tender, loving kind of support. As in the first movement, Brahms develops a few simple motifs throughout.
- The third movement (Allegro giocoso – Poco meno presto – Tempo I) (24:50) sounds like a shared triumph, with all voices joining in a glorious celebration. As in the first two movements, few seminal ideas are thoroughly fleshed out.
- We hear a stark contrast against the first three movements with the ominous opening of the fourth (Allegro energico e passionato – Più Allegro) (31:10). This movement is the outlier, sounding tones of conflict and foreboding throughout most of its length. Still, the orchestral voices remain united, as though they were seeking an answer to a shared crisis. A call for calmness and reflection begins at around 32:16, followed by hints of resolution beginning at around 33:58. At 37:24, the stakes are announced, and then at 37:40, the players begin to fight back, not in unison but in the harmony that characterizes healthy relationships. The conflict will not be overcome easily (37:50) – life has become more complex – but the voices remain unified. The symphony concludes in unified defiance.
Intimate and tender, Mozart’s ethereal Clarinet Quintet in A Major, K 581, "Stadler" (1789) provides a perfect counterpoint to Brahms’ Fourth Symphony in expressing the concept of relationships. The work is presented from the perspective of the clarinet-protagonist. Wrap yourself in its rich, buttery tones, and spiritually embrace your friends as you listen to this Romantic masterpiece.
Chamber works of Arnold Bax:
- Nonet (1931)
- String Quintet in G minor, in one movement (1933)
- Concerto for Flute, Oboe, Harp and String Quartet (1936)
- Octet for horn, piano & string sextet (1934)
- Threnody and Scherzo, octet for bassoon, harp & string sextet, in two movements (1936)
Works of Richard Stöhr:
- Suite for Flute, Violin, Cello and Piano, Op. 76 (1942).
- String Quartet No. 2 in E flat major, Op 86 (1942)
Chamber works by Franz Berwald:
- Duo in D Minor for Violin & Piano
- Duo in D Major for Pianoforte & Violin: 1. Allegro; 2. Romance: Andante; 3. Allegro giocoso.
- Piano Trio No. 4 in C Major (1853)
- Beethoven, Triple Concerto for Piano, Violin, Cello and Orchestra in C major, 56 (1803)
- Brahms, Double Concerto for Violin, Cello & Orchestra in A Minor, 102 (1887)
- In his Symphony in F Major, Op. 8, H 47, "The Cotswolds" (1900), Gustav Holst wrote of his land and people he loved and admired.
- Dvořák, Moravian Duets
- Herzogenberg, String Quartet No. 3, Op. 42, No. 3: 1st; 2nd; 3rd.
- Goetz, Piano Quartet in E Major, Op. 6: 1. Rasch und feurig; 2. Langsam; 3. Scherzo - Sehr lebhaft; 4. Sehr langsam - Frisch und lebendig.
- Appleton, Julia (2001): piano pieces evoking tenderness
- Baksa, Sonata for Flute and Guitar (2004): 1. Brightly; 2. Very smoothly; 3. Lively.
- Borodin, Piano Trio in D Major, posth. (1860)
- Draeseke, Quintet in B-flat Major for piano, French horn and strings, Op. 48 (1888)
- Enescu, Piano Suite No. 2, “Des choches sonores” (The Ringing Bells) in D Major, Op. 10 (1903): 1. Toccata . . .; 2. Sarabande . . .; 3. Pavane . . .; 4. Bouree . . .
- Biarent, Rapsodie wallonne for piano & orchestra (1910)
- Bernstein, Facsimile, Choreographic Essay for Orchestra (1946)
From the dark side:
- Janáček: String Quartet No. 1 (inspired by Tolstoy’s novella “The Kreutzer Sonata”, which had been inspired by Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata), JW7/8 (1923): this modern string quartet is “a tale of failed wedlock, jealousy, adultery and murder,” telling “of the destructive power of passion.” [Ates Orga, from program notes for this album.] The husband descends into unhappiness and madness as the cuckold (first violin) flits in and out at will.
- Péter Eötvös, Three Sisters (1998): derived from Chekhov’s play by the same title, the opera explores dysfunctional family relationships.
Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
[William Butler Yeats, “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven”]
- Pablo Neruda, “La Reina” (“The Queen”)
- Pablo Neruda, Sonnet VIII
- Edgar Lee Masters, “Jeremy Carlisle”
From the dark side: